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Energy experts discuss renewables and future of coal in Wyoming

A surface coal mine in the Powder River Basin.
BLM Wyoming
A surface coal mine in the Powder River Basin.

At a recent energy conference in Laramie, industry experts spoke about the future of renewables in the state, and how they will complement a state economy dominated by fossil fuels.

Much of the focus at Wyoming’s Energy Future conference was on nuclear, which is a source of energy that advocates say is an environmentally friendly alternative to more traditional sources, such as natural gas and coal.

Wyoming’s first nuclear plant is going up in Kemmerer, in place of a retiring coal mine. Terra Power, a nuclear company started by Bill Gates, is building the plant, and they claim the technology used in their design is the first of its kind in the nation. The plant is intended to be smaller and a more flexible source of energy compared to other nuclear plants.

Chris Levesque, the CEO of Terra Power, said since Wyoming is ‘the energy state,’ nuclear is a natural fit.

“Wyoming really gets energy,” he said. “This is going to be a great opportunity for Wyoming, not just to build, you know, one plant, but to build multiple plants and build an energy industry around it.”

However, those in the coal industry say there does not need to be a full transition to renewable energy, adding that coal still has a viable future.

Chief Development Officer of Peabody, a top producing coal company in the state, Patrick Forkin said at the conference that he has seen renewed interest in Powder River Basin coal since the Russia-Ukraine war destabilized energy resources in Europe.

That is because Russia is a top supplier of fossil fuels to Europe.

“We are seeing some desperation in that, ‘We’ll take anything that you have, we need the heat, so we will burn anything.’ And on that point, we're seeing something in the coal industry that we've never seen before,” Forkin said.

However, Forkin admitted taking advantage of the interest is a challenge, as he said current U.S. energy policy does not support exporting coal.

Wyoming is the top producer of coal in the nation, and Peabody Powder River Mining is the top producing company in the state.

However, the International Energy Agency warns that the world needs to move away from fossil fuels, like coal, in order to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change. This means shifting to renewables, like wind, solar and nuclear.

Mary Throne, a commissioner on the Wyoming Public Service Commission and former state representative, also spoke at the conference. She said that she envisions a realistic future where 80 percent of energy comes from renewables and 20 percent from traditional energy sources paired with carbon capture technology, in order to meet state and national climate goals.

“You cannot build a new coal fired power plant today,” Throne said. “You cannot build a carbon emitting thing right now.”

But she also pointed to Wyoming’s long relationship with coal and how it is the backbone to much of the economy in the state.

“Coal is not the villain,” Throne said. “The villain, using air quotes, is greenhouse gasses. And if we can all agree that we need to pursue decarbonisation goals, and I think there is consensus on that point.”

Wyoming has invested millions into carbon capture technology, and most recently, two U.S. companies announced their plans to build a direct air carbon capture plant and storage facility.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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